Turning our national parks into zoos - are wildlife management policies failing to truly recover endangered species?

Earlier this week Yellowstone National Park released its ‘State of Conservation’ report in which it outlines its financial needs for improving or maintaining the park’s values as a World Heritage Site.  Among its top priorities, the Park identifies the need to translocate grizzly bears into the park to maintain the population’s genetic diversity. 

Given that grizzlies in Yellowstone are so few and so isolated that they would require the addition of translocated bears, it is confusing that the Fish and Wildlife Service believes the Yellowstone population of grizzlies is recovered and should be removed from the endangered species list.  I mean, if a population is recovered, shouldn’t it be able to sustain itself into the future without indefinite human intervention to keep it going?

But in fact, the translocation of bears is part of Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting plan for the grizzly.  That is, the Service has specifically acknowledged that the Yellowstone population is genetically isolated from other grizzly populations and has been for about 100 years.  Their answer to this is to translocate bears on a regular basis starting in 2020.  While there are some efforts to attempt to connect the Yellowstone population with other grizzlies through landscape protection to facilitate connectivity, the recovery of grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park, by design, calls for indefinite artificial supplementation of the population to maintain its viability in the long term.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has come up with a similar plan for wolves in Yellowstone.  The Service again has acknowledged that wolves in the Yellowstone area are the most isolated subpopulation in the Northern Rocky Mountains.  However, rather than requiring the surrounding states to maintain a sufficient number of wolves to ensure a genetically robust, connected population of wolves, they instead plan to rely on the translocation of wolves to mediate any genetic loss due to the potential isolation of the Yellowstone population following state management. 

If we are going to allow for the isolation of our National Parks and then need to constantly supplement the wildlife populations, how does that make them much different than a zoo? Is this how we want to manage our parks and the recovery of these endangered populations of America’s most iconic wildlife?

Wolf bear

About the Authors

Sylvia Fallon

Director, Wildlife Conservation project

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